Somatic Bodymapping: Its Usefulness in Rolfing

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“The Body is the Map of the Mind”

J.D. Landis, Solitude

Most of us have had clients who, despite having been Rolfed and exhausting standard medical treatments for their chronic pain, have not found sustained relief from their physical problems. Once an underlying pathology has been eliminated as a cause, it is often postulated that there exists an emotional or psychological component to that pain that has not been accessed that prevents the client’s recovery. I would like to consider a few aspects of this thorny issue and propose a client-based approach to this problem.

In an effort to relieve pain, Rolfers review medical histories and discuss their client’s physical symptoms.   Next, we “read” our client’s body for insights as to how their pain expresses itself in their connective tissue and movement patterns. In addition to this reading, client reports and feedback are factored in and an appropriate protocol is structured and implemented.1 However, many of us go considerably beyond this reading, employing other modalities to assist in providing meaning for the client’s pain. What many of these other methods share in common are theories replete with connections between specific "organ systems" and emotions (Chinese medicine)or links between specific anatomical geography and emotional issues (Huna Kane).2 All these somatic systems employ a set of descriptors for the body’s regions or systems. The use of such descriptors is normally called bodymapping.

The underlying premise of all bodymapping systems is that there exists a one-to-one correspondence between specific locales and emotional states.   This cause and effect relationship dictates what treatment is to be used and where the practitioner should focus his efforts.   Often, for practitioners using these models, client feedback is less relevant than what the preferred bodymapping system dictates. Sometimes, practitioners working in this manner seek to define a root cause or source of an errant emotion, perhaps residing deep within the client’s repressed psyche or at a specific landmark of the body.3  

We find a proliferation of mappings in recent somatic texts such as: Alexander Lowen’s The Language of the Body, Caroline Myss’ Anatomy of the Spirit and Stanley Keleman’s Emotional Anatomy. Many Rolfers are most likely familiar with Stanley Keleman’s notion of “assaults to form” and his body morphology schema.   This model recently figured prominently in critical evaluations of the Rolfing entrance examination’s now–defunct psychological case study question. Keleman’s four somatic types: rigid, dense, swollen and collapsed provide a detailed schema for somatic and emotional patterning. In addition to a consideration of characteristics of several internal organ and tubular systems, he provides extensive lists of personality characteristics associated with each type.   Here is a partial list of emotions associated with the “Swollen” type: “Feelings and Emotional Characteristics: grandiose, dissatisfied, self-absorbed, narcissistic, seductive, superior, inferior, inflamed.”4  

In the world of Rolfing itself such mappings are everywhere. We evaluate connective tissue patterns and infer structural causes for our client’s site-specific pain and more global compensatory patterns based on our insights. Many of us offer emotional explanations for somatic patterns based on our particular training and supplement these ideas with other referential somatic schemas. To support the use of such models, we need look no further than Dr. Rolf, herself, who also bodymapped.   Most of us are familiar with this famous quote. “People go into flexion for emotional security. They curl up for protection.   Moshe Feldenkreis wrote a classic (Body and Mature Behavior) stating that immature behavior, negative emotions demand flexion and are expressed by flexion.”5

We might also cite Robert Schleip whose article on genetically-based somatic patternings   refers to the above quote. In this intriguing model, he lays out imaginative links between instinctual reflexes (startle and landau) and flexion and extension dominant structural patterns. Toward the end of this article, Schleip cautiously speculates on links between specific history and a preference for these patterns. “It is tempting to speculate about the reasons why one person’s structure seems to be dominantly shaped by one of those reflex patterns … It could be that this is based on particular circumstances in the person’s history that triggered one of those reflex patterns more strongly.”6   His cautious approach when venturing into this arena is well-founded.

My point here is not that somatic models are bad, however, I do not believe that their ubiquity enhances their veracity. Clearly, there exists abundant literature that supports the link between psyche and soma (for example Energy Medicine and other writings of Jim and Nora Oschmann). Few Rolfers would argue that they "touch" only the physical body. Most also accept the notion of somatic memory, although they differ greatly on the best ways to access and release traumatic material stored in the soma.7

But why should we bother at all with causation, with trying to link an event to a specific injury? What we find is that this may in fact be important in some circumstances, especially where there is pain involving emotional trauma -- not only because clients seem to need it, but also because such an "understanding" may in fact help relieve the client’s pain! It is certainly challenging to find a means of helping clients understand not only the physical but emotional sources of their pain. But can this be accomplished without having to resort to elaborate and rigid bodymapping models based on theories that read more like myth than science and that link causes and effects in highly improbable ways?

I would argue strongly in the affirmative. To pursue this line further, let us consider a few less directive methods used by Rolfers and see how successfully they avoid mapping.   One recent model used by Rolfers interested in accessing and discharging emotional trauma has been developed and taught by William Redpath. Redpath employs guided imagery and metaphorical language to help shape meaning for the client’s trauma-based pain. According to descriptions of former students and from what I infer from his challenging book, Redpath’s methods are deliberately indirect and client-based. However, one important dimension of his technique is based on a detailed interpretation of shapes and colors experienced during the session. Redpath’s book provides detailed information on what specific colors and shapes mean and how to use them to infer meaning. Here is a typical passage. “Sometimes a harbinger of health, pink appears to report a change which the client often welcomes. Again, in some configurations, there even seems to be some personality attachment to the color pink, and I have been intrigued by the ways in which the client will attempt to make the color, or shape, anatomically right.” Such color and shape mappings as we find here are highly speculative and, as I have argued elsewhere, colormapping models are frustratingly inconsistent and vague.8    

Let us consider another less directive trauma technology employed by most movement teachers, including the author. As the work was taught to me, sessions are designed to focus on helping the client create his own meaning for internal experience while exploring specific movement awareness exercises. To attain these goals, many use techniques like NLP-inspired language and movement cues as well as simple comparison-contrast.9 For instance, one way to language how the client experiences areas of tension is to determine whether his word choice is predominantly visual, auditory or kinesthetic. The practitioner then accommodates his language to reflect the client’s preferred linguistic style.   This less directive method should then prove effective in helping the client interpret his pain’s “meaning”.   Another cueing system involves eye movement which are linked to these three processing preferences. We can easily advance the argument that the eye-position mappings for languaging preferences are as suspect as color mapping or Keleman’s somatic types, notwithstanding Bandler’s self-deprecatory view that everything he teaches is a lie. “NLP differs only in that we deliberately make up lies in order to try to understand the subjective experience of a human being.”10  

It would seem that we are surrounded by examples of somatic mappings at every turn. They can hardly be avoided, but should be seen as totally separate from the efficacy of our techniques.   Although some practitioners might prefer the less elaborate somatic model frequently employed in Rolfing Movement sessions to, say, the Oriental emotion/organ model, all are encouraged to remain cautiously leery of any somatic mappings and consciously avoid the pitfalls of inferring external meaning for their client’s internal experience.

One possible reaction to this argument, despite my statements to the contrary, is to “read” it as impugning the efficacy of those methods cited.   One might further ascribe an attendant judgment of the efficacy of the work done by those who employ these dubious models. Such a reading totally misrepresents the central argument.   The underlying thesis here is that there is a lack of proof for all somatic mapping systems and that the use of them is dubious science. This use of “bad” science does not imply “bad” technique and there is no demonstrable connection between unprovable theoretical mapping systems and the efficacy of any school of touch therapy that employs these mappings.   Those who suspect that this is the “real” argument, might pursue a faulty line of reasoning like the following.   The author suggests that since Dr. Rolf uses the Feldenkreis flexor metaphor and since that metaphor is impossible to scientifically “prove,” her work suffers by inference.   To reason thusly is to blur the distinction between poor science to explain somatic therapy and the ability of a given method, i.e., Rolfing, to evoke change.  

I believe that using the least directive and meaning-laden "client-based" approach has several advantages over more formalized bodymapping systems. First, it avoids the pitfalls of formulating a unilateral one-to-one correspondence between a specific pain locale and an emotional state, or an emotional state (effect) with a theoretical physiological "cause".   Second, it seems to work better at making pain, that has a psychological component, more "comprehensible" for some clients and thus more amenable to treatment.   This is done without any pretense as to the cause and effect relationship between past emotional trauma, or current psychological and physiological states and perceived pain.   In this context, this approach simply becomes a tool for the relief of pain, and, in my opinion, a more effective and appropriate one in that it allows the client to construct and resolve his physical and emotional pain from within rather than relying on any externally imposed representational schema.11


1. Rolf, Dr. Ida, Ida Rolf Speaks About Rolfing and Physical Reality. Edited and with an Introduction by Rosemary Feitis (Boulder, CO: The Rolf Institute, 1978), p. 96. When reading through Ida Rolf Speaks for somatic quotes for this article, I found this interesting quote. “Rolfers don’t need feedback. As you observe more, all kinds of things come to you.” As I read this, it strengthens my argument by suggesting that the story and specific somatic linkings imposed from without or inferred by the client are ancillary to what you see and the changes we initiate.  

2. For a summary of the familiar five element theory of Chinese medicine, see: Chia, Mantak & Maneewan, Chi Nei Tsang: Internal Organ Massage, Rev. ed. (Huntington, NY: Healing Tao Books, 1991), pp. 45-54. Typical of this theory is the following: “The negative aspects of the Wood’s phase emotion are anger, violence and making plans without knowing what one is doing … The idea that anger can affect the liver is reflected in the word ‘liverish’” (p. 48). The Huna Kane reference is based on an introductory class I took in this method taught by Joseph Mina, a practitioner and teacher in Atlanta in 1996.

3. I wish to acknowledge the research of Dr. Les Kertay who first discussed his ideas on somatic psychological models several years ago. The interested reader is referred to Kertay’s dissertation: “Temperament, Personality, and the Mind: Exploring the Embodied Personality,” PhD. Dissertation, Clinical Psychology (Georgia State University), 1995.   For his evaluation of recent somatic models, see: “Appendix A: A Review of the Literature,” pp. 59-78.   Specific models cited in Kertay’s dissertation were not considered here.   Rather, I drew my examples from models I hoped would be more familiar to Rolfers.

4. Keleman, Stanley, Emotional Anatomy: the Structure of Experience (Berkeley: Center Press), 1985. For a detailed discussion of characteristics associated with each type, see Chapter 4, “Patterns of Somatic Distress,” pp. 103-48.     The quote is found on p. 135.

5. Rolf, Dr. Ida, Ida Rolf Speaks, p. 98.

6. Schleip, Robert, “Primary Reflexes and Structural Typologies, “ Rolf Lines (October 1993), Reprinted in the Collection: Talking to the Fascia, Changing the Brain: A Collection of Articles on Rolfing and the Neuro-Myofascial Net (Boulder, CO: The Rolf Institute, 1994): 8.

7. Oschmann, James, Ph.D. “Somatic Recall I & II.” Readings on the Scientific Basis of Bodywork. Vol. II (Dover, NH: N.O.R.A, 1995).  

8. Redpath, William, Trauma Energetics: A Study of Held-Energy Systems (Lexington, MA: Barberry Press, 1995), p. 115. For shape and texture interpretive data, see pp. 117-127. For more on problems of “color-mapping” see my unpublished article “Colored Rolfing” reproduced on my website.   I wish to thank Deborah Stucker and Misha Noonan who provided helpful information of how Redpath teaches and structures his sessions.

9. The presentation of NLP techniques comes from lectures and demonstrations in my Combined Studies Training with Gael Ohlgren (Sept 1994-March 1995) and my movement certification training with Vivian Jaye and Jane Harrington (March 1995).   I am particularly grateful to Gael and, my friend, Gerry Alard who first introduced me to NLP.

10. Bandler, Richard Using Your Brain for A Change (Moab, Utah: Real People Press, 1996), p. 19.

11. I wish to acknowledge the editorial assistance of my dear friend, Harry Blazer, who helped me tighten my arguments and pointed out numerous logical errors in earlier drafts of this article.

Copyright for this article remains with the author This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. . Reprinted here with his kind permission.